We happened to find ourselves in the same corner of the room, looking at a print on the wall, sipping our drinks. We gave each other a polite nod. I was trying not to look too starstruck. Ordinarily, I am quite blasé about being in the presence of famous actors. But this wasn’t someone ordinary – this was Peter O’Toole.
The first screen man I had a crush on when at the age of eleven, I saw Lawrence of Arabia. I am sure those innocent but deeply intelligent blue eyes contributed to my fascination with T.E. Lawrence. For months, I combed the local library for any book I could find about this man I saw as an unconventional, idealistic, free-thinker. My favourite scene in the film remains the one where Lawrence, with a theatrical gesture, extinguishes a match between his thumb and index finger, without wincing. One of the other soldiers, William Potter, tries it and burns himself. “It damn well hurts!” he says.
“Certainly, it hurts,” replies Lawrence with nonchalance.
“Well, what’s the trick, then?”
“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
It was a launch party at the Rose Theatre, Bankside, on a cold February night, about ten years ago. And so there I was, standing next to Peter O’Toole.
I cannot remember which one of us started the conversation. I think he made a comment about the print on the wall – a plan of the Rose Theatre*. Before long, we were discussing the symbolism of the rose throughout the centuries. We talked about Dante and his rose-shaped Paradiso. The rose as purity, as perfection, as essence, as beauty. In poetry, history, art and mysticism. His eyes shone as he spoke. He told me about a special rose he grew in his garden in Ireland. Eyes full of passion for knowledge, and impatient intelligence.
He asked what I did for a living. At the time, I was combining my thespian pursuits with my work as a complementary medicine practitioner. “You’re like Schiller,” he said.
“Well, he was a doctor,” I said. “I practise alternative medicine.”
I said I thought theatre was one of the most honest professions in the world. Peter O’Toole gave a cynical snort. “Honest?”
Yes. Honest. Theatre people are not in it for the money – not with the pittance we earn – but for the sheer, incurable love of it. Theatre people don’t promise to cure, build, manage or rule – or even change your life in any way. They just offer you a good night out, and a performance they weave their hearts and souls into. What could be more honest?
He heard me out. “What’s you name?” he asked, his eyes apparently trying to establish whether I was interesting or mad.
He suggested going to look at the actual archeological digs of the Rose. I was about to follow him when I noticed a small crowd forming behind me. “There’s all these people waiting to talk to you,” I said.
He did’t seem to hear me or, if he did, he chose not to acknowledge my words. He just said, with a hint of irritation, “Are you coming?”
And who am I to refuse if Peter O’Toole offers to show me around Christopher Marlowe’s old theatre? So I followed him down the wooden steps, into the damp archeological digs, sections partitioned with orange lights. “That’s where the groundlings would have stood. And that’s where…”
I was transfixed. I knew it was a moment to remember.
When we returned to the main foyer, I said goodbye to him. “What’s your name?” he asked again. I wonder whether he had decided between the interesting and the mad, by then.
A few years later, when I became a theatrical agent, I staged a performance at the Rose Theatre with my clients. Peter O’Toole was the first person I invited. Sadly, I did not hear back from his agent.
A couple of hours ago, when the news of Peter O’Toole’s passing away flashed on my computer screen, I burst into tears. He was a great actor. He was also brilliant to talk to on a winter’s evening, in Kit Marlowe’s old theatre.
*Please see also A Poesy Ringful of Stories.